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Fair Trade USA Proposes Change to Its Fair Trade Certification Standard

By Lucas Witman

Fair Trade USA, the leading third party certifier of fair trade products in the United States,
announced a proposal to change the standards that food and beverage companies must adhere to
if they wish to label their offerings as “fair trade certified.” If these changes are implemented, a
company that manufactures a composite product (made from multiple ingredients) will need to
verify that at least 20 percent of the ingredients in that product were produced in accordance with
fair trade guidelines. That product then can carry a Fair Trade USA Certified Ingredients label.
Although these changes are thus far only in the proposal stage and have not yet become policy,
the certifier is already drawing a great deal of attention from specialty food companies who
market fair trade products and from their customers.
Started in 1988 by the Dutch organization Max Havelaar, the fair trade certification movement is
part of a larger worldwide effort to ensure that workers in developing countries are paid a fair
wage and are employed in safe working conditions and that their companies are operating under
a socially and environmentally sustainable business model. Popular fair trade certified food
products include coffee, chocolate, sugar, tea and fruit. Fair Trade USA is just one organization
that certifies products fair trade. Others include Fairtrade International, TransFair USA and Fair
for Life.
According to Sri Artham, Director of Consumer Packaged Goods for Fair Trade USA, the goal
of these proposed changes is both to strengthen and clarify the Fair Trade USA certification
model. If enacted, Artham hopes these changes will help to clarify for consumers the specific fair
trade ingredients that go into a product, enabling companies to disclose when just a single
ingredient is fair trade. At the same time, he also hopes that these changes will strengthen the
overall weight of the fair trade movement by enabling more companies to participate than would
otherwise be able to do so under the current standards.
“That’s our hope, that more companies can participate in Fair Trade and more consumers,”
Artham said. “Our hope is to make things stronger and cleaner.”
According to Fair Trade USA, it is simply too difficult for some companies to use 100 percent
fair trade ingredients in the products they offer, effectively prohibiting these companies from
participating in the fair trade movement under the standards that are currently in place. For
example, a domestic chocolate company may want to use fair trade cocoa in their milk chocolate
bar. However, it might be an insurmountable task for them to source fair trade certified milk and
sugar. If the proposed changes are implemented, such a company would be able to display their
commitment to fair trade principles, even though only perhaps one third of the ingredients in its
product are actually fair trade.
A number of specialty foods retailers thus far are coming out in favor of this proposal,
expressing their hope these changes will open up the fair trade movement to greater participation
across the board.
“I really think the fair trade model, for it to really reach more people, expanding and maybe (in
some people’s interpretation) loosening some of the standards is a good thing that’s certainly going to help more farmers in the end. It’s going to enable the whole system to grow,” said Brad
Kintzer, Chief Chocolate Maker for TCHO. TCHO markets a wide range of Fair Trade USA
certified confections, including chocolates for eating, drinking and baking. For Kintzer,
participating in the fair trade movement not only enables TCHO to develop strong relationships
with the distant farmers that supply the company’s raw ingredients, but it also helps the company
reach out to a socially committed consumer base. Therefore, allowing more companies to use a
Fair Trade USA Certified Ingredients label will benefit both the companies and potentially the
For Gary Guittard, owner of Guittard Chocolate Company, the proposed changes to the Fair
Trade USA certification process are a good thing, because they will provide clarity to consumers
who want to know more about the specific amount of fair trade ingredients that go into a
composite product. “I think anything that opens it up and allows transparency is good,” Guittard
said. “Maybe it might be not good for the long run, but certainly to get fair trade more acceptable
and transparent, so people know that the beans are fair trade, but maybe the sugar isn’t, or maybe
the vanilla isn’t—I just think it makes it more transparent.”
Guittard points out another potential benefit of these changes: an increase in overall availability
of fair trade certified ingredients and products on the market. “The actual reality of it is that
you’ll end up buying more fair trade,” he said.
Still, these proposed changes have not been without some opposition. Criticism has emerged
from many who fear that Fair Trade USA is simply diluting its standards. “The proposed labeling
policy falls below the standards upheld by the larger fair trade movement, and are detrimental to
the very concept of fair trade,” said Ariel Vegosen, a fair trade and social justice activist. “Fair
Trade USA will not require brands to list the actual percentage of content that is fair trade. They
are also eliminating their previous policy on commercial availability, which required brands to
use all fair trade ingredients that are available from a fair trade certified source. In addition, Fair
Trade USA will exclude dairy from its calculations, instead of just water, which is more typical.”
Kerstin Lindgren, Campaign Director for Fair World Project, argues that fair trade certification is
important, because it differentiates for consumers companies that are committed to social justice
and environmental sustainability from companies that may simply be interested in reaching out
to a certain market segment, and thus may be making claims that are otherwise unsubstantiated.
“If something says that it’s fair, then it should really be fair, and that should resonate with
consumers,” Lindgren said. Still, Lindgren is hopeful that most companies that are truly
committed to fair trade principles will not waver in their commitment, regardless of any changes
Fair Trade USA may make to its certification standards. “Mission driven companies see business
as a way to do good in the world,” Lindgren said. “That’s what motivates some of the truly
visionary companies.”This definitely seems to be the case for TCHO.
According to Kintzer, these changes are likely to have limited impact on the way his company
does business. “Really we often say that we’re in a lot of ways beyond fair trade, because we go
beyond the certification, and we do a lot of work with our cocoa farmers on the ground, setting
up fermentation systems, drying systems,” he said. “That benefits the farmer, [and] it benefits
chocolate makers that they’re working with, including ourselves.”

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